(CBS) - Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum swept the nominating contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado Tuesday night, putting him back in contention for the GOP nomination.
Santorum now has four victories under his belt in the GOP race, more than any other candidate. His new standing stalls Mitt Romney's earlier momentum and gives Santorum grounds to argue that he -- not Newt Gingrich -- is the best conservative alternative to Romney.
Speaking from his Missouri campaign headquarters in St. Charles Tuesday night, Santorum looked ahead to the general election.
"I don't stand here to clam to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney," he said. "I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama."
Santorum said that during the nominating contest, "Gov. Romney's best attribute is, 'I've got the most money and the best organization.'" But in the general election, Santorum said, that won't be the case. With that in mind, he said Republicans need a candidate who can make "sharp contrasts" with the president.
With 3,653 of 4,137 precincts reporting in Minnesota, Santorum won 45 percent of the vote, with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas coming in second place with 27 percent. Romney earned 17 percent while Gingrich took 11 percent.
With all precincts reporting in Missouri, Santorum carried 55 percent of the vote, while Romney took 25 percent and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas took 12 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich failed to get on the ballot in Missouri.
In Colorado, Santorum won 40 percent of the vote, while Romney won 35 percent. Gingrich won 13 percent, and Paul took 12 percent.
Officially, a total of zero delegates will be awarded after Tuesday's contests. The Minnesota caucuses are the first step in a long process to assign delegates; the same is true in Colorado. Missouri's primary has been described as simply a "beauty contest," since the state's delegates will only be awarded after the March 17 caucuses. Still, the night clearly presented the former Pennsylvania senator with the opportunity to re-emerge as the conservative candidate in the race.
Santorum just barely edged out Romney in the Iowa caucuses in January, but he fell behind Romney and Gingrich in the following nominating contests. Santorum spent more time than any of the other candidates in Missouri, which borders Iowa.
Romney should have had the advantage in both Colorado and Minnesota, which he carried in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries. He awaited the returns Tuesday night in Colorado, where he spent most of the past week campaigning.
"This was a good night for Rick Santorum," Romney said Tuesday night from Denver. "But I expect to become our nominee with your help."
Taking shots at all of his GOP rivals, he said, "I'm the only person in this race, Republican or Democrat, who has never served a day of time in Washington. In the world I come from, leadership is about starting a business, not trying to get a bill out of committee."
Anticipating Santorum's strong performance, the Romney campaign this week sought to tamp down expectations for Tuesday. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Romney supporter, argued Monday that Santorum is neither as conservative as he has painted himself nor as conservative as are Minnesota caucus-goers. He noted that the Minnesota caucuses typically have a "modest turnout" and heavily conservative voter base.
Paul managed to perform well in Minnesota with a strong organization and several recent campaign stops there. He also benefits from the caucus system, which draws in more dedicated voters. Over the past week, his events drew thousands of supporters.
Noting the enthusiasm among his supporters, Paul said Tuesday night, "I keep thinking it must be a lot more fun really believing in something than just campaigning for nothing."
The libertarian congressman said that while he has yet to win a state, his campaign is excelling at picking up delegates along the way. A candidate needs 1,144 delegates to secure the GOP nomination. Paul said that when the "dust settles," he expects to pick up a significant number of delegates in Minnesota.
Gingrich was in Ohio on Tuesday night, where Republican voters will weigh in on "Super Tuesday" on March 6, along with nine other states.
Counting pledged and unpledged delegates, Romney now has 97, Santorum has 39, Gingrich has 30 and Paul has eight.